THE ONE AND THE MANY
A sermon preached by
Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Denver, CO
Sunday, September 15, 2013
Text: 1 Corinthians 12:4-13
In my first days as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Palo Alto, I encountered a mother and her young son in the church hallway. The boy, who was 7 or so, had just finished a lesson at the music school that occupies much of the second floor of our educational wing. I greeted them and engaged the mother in a brief, casual conversation. Eventually, she turned to her son and introduced me as the pastor of the church. His eyes grew wide as he gestured all around, “Do you own this church?”
I was slightly taken aback by his question. No one had ever asked me that before. I could see how his young mind was working, but I reassured him that I did not own the church. I only worked there. On reflection, it did cross my mind that it’s the people who own the church or at least its building. The building had been there long time before I arrived and would likely be there long after I left. And then it also struck me that the church, in a larger sense, belongs to God and to Christ, who is its head. That was too much to lay on a little boy, so I simply wished them well, inviting them to join us any time.
This role of pastor is a curious one. I do not own the church, though there are times when I feel it owns me – both literally and figuratively. The pastorate is more than an occupation or a profession; it is a calling and a high commitment to serving God as well as a community. The classic refrain is that a pastor is on call 24/7, year round. Following this lead, many pastors fail to take care of themselves to the detriment of their own well-being and that of their congregation. I trust that the First Baptist Church of Denver and Brian, as your pastor, will make mutual care and support a priority. You will all benefit from the practice.
This summer, after Brian had invited me to preach at this installation service, I had another encounter in the church hallway. (Funny how much ministry goes on in the church’s hallways!) A woman from the neighborhood had brought her aging mother to see the church and to inquire about the possibility of her mother attending First Baptist. The mother’s background was Southern Baptist and I immediately had concerns about how comfortable she would feel in our progressive Baptist setting. I told her a little about us and encouraged her to come check us out. I had further concerns, though, when she informed me that she had been attending so-and-so’s church in Southern California. I believe she expected me to recognize her pastor’s name in connection with his large church. It was clear she had a different conception of church than I.
It’s always made me uncomfortable to hear people say, “Oh that’s Rick Warren’s church” or “Bill Hybels’s church” or “Nadia Bolz-Weber’s church” or…you fill in the blank. As I have already said, no church is “my church” as pastor. In fact, in the best Baptist tradition, we try to forgo any hierarchy. The pastor may be the spiritual leader and the chief administrator, but, for Baptists, she is to be the “first among equals,” because sacred to our tradition is a belief in the “priesthood of all believers.” At her best, a Baptist pastor is one who facilitates the spiritual life and leadership of the people whom she serves. In a classic sense, Baptist pastors are called to be “servant leaders.” I pray that this church will never become Brian Henderson’s church but will always be seen as a blessed community known as First Baptist Church. Regardless of background or training, we are all on a spiritual journey in which a pastor gains as much from a hallway encounter as a congregant receives from a Sunday sermon.
In a little while we will sing a wonderful hymn by a gay, Methodist pastor, hymn writer and off-Broadway composer who for many years was on the staff of Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village. Al Carmines was a clever, eclectic composer and writer. This is probably his best known hymn. I suggested this hymn to Brian after he told me that members of the fabulous Denver Gay Men’s Chorus would be singing “One Voice” at this morning’s service. “Many gifts, one Spirit,” the hymn proclaims, “one love known in many ways. In our difference is blessing, from diversity we praise one Giver, one Word, one Spirit, one God known in many ways…” The One and the many.
The theme for this hymn is clearly drawn from the words of today’s second Sacred Reading. I have a fondness for the letters the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth. I think this is because First Church, Corinth, seems like any number of contentious, contemporary churches. You’ve got the wealthy lording it over the poor, making sure they get the choicest elements of the meal before the ordinary folk are ever served. You’ve got splits and factions over theology, practice and leadership. You’ve got a congregation living at a great international crossroads with all the challenges and blessings of multiculturalism. Don’t the issues sound like those confronted by modern congregations? Do any of those concerns crop up wherever you worship, including this group gathered here today? Ever bicker over money or power, influence, theology, leadership, style, etc.?
Well, Paul was a clever writer and a skillful politician. He had his own agenda for the Corinthian Christians and he’s not shy about letting them have it. Still, when he gets to this point in his argument, I think he’s on to something ageless. There are many gifts, but one body. He’s speaking here of the body of Christ, one his favorite images for the church. As Jesus Christ has gone on to reign in glory, his disciples are left on earth to be his body, to carry forward his vision and live out his ministry.
Now none of is Christ in totality, though we may be touched by a Christ-consciousness and carry Christ-like qualities in our lives. Paul argues that the only way Christ can be complete in the world today is if we pull together as Christ’s body – “many gifts, one spirit.” In this 12th chapter of First Corinthians, Paul pushes the metaphor. He writes, “Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as [God] chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’” (1 Corinthians 12:14-21).
So, if we did a little poll today, I wonder how we’d do. How many hands to we have here? How many feet? Who has eyes to see? Who has ears to hear? Who can smell the coffee brewing down the hall? Are there any hearts of compassion present? Any sharp minds here today? For the fun of it, take a moment to consider, if I am a member of the body of Christ, what is my part – foot, hand, eye, ear, nose, brain, belly? Now take it a step farther, what is my role vis-à-vis all the other parts? How do I fit in? Where am I most useful? When do I take the lead? When do I step back and support another’s function or leadership? Take a minute and look around. In the strength of your imagination, try to see where and how you might fit as a part of the body of Christ and, by extension, the First Baptist Church of Denver.
I know we are not all members of this community nor do we all share common backgrounds and beliefs. Still, I believe we can find ways to support and participate in the life of this congregation as it seeks to live into a period of renewed service to God, to this neighborhood, to this city and to the wider world. Good and exciting things are happening here that at minimum need our best wishes, our prayers and our support. Clearly this is a place that welcomes the One and the many. That, in and of itself, is a good thing. The larger community can only be blessed by its ministry and by that of its visionary servant leader, Brian Henderson.
A while back, when Brian was going through a rough transition and thinking he would need to leave the ministry, along with others, I encouraged Brian not to give up too quickly. It was clear to me then and is clearer now that Brian has remarkable gifts for ministry. This congregation is to be congratulated for recognizing those gifts and calling him as your pastor. At the same time, this is not Brian’s church, nor is he even the head of it. Paul makes it very clear that Christ is the head of the body, the church. It will take all of you working together to realize the full potentiality of your call to discipleship and your shared vision of the reign of God in this time and place.
To the members and friends of the First Baptist Church of Denver and to my friend, Brian, I pray that your dreams, grounded deeply in your love for God, for Jesus Christ, for the Holy Spirit, for one another and for the world beyond your doors, bonded together from many into one, will be fulfilled. May God bless you all with infinite blessing and keep you faithful – the One and the many. Amen.